Saturday, October 4, 2008

OSF: The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler

In The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler playwright Jeff Whitty (an aptronym) has created a bizarre world in which fictional characters reside. They live on so long as people still think of their characters. When they don't, the characters pass away.

Hedda Gabler decides she doesn't like this arrangement. Gabler, the title character of Henrik Ibsen's 1890 play, commits suicide in that script because of the purposelessness of life. In the world of Further Adventures, characters stay in character. Living on the Cul de Sac of Tragic Women, Hedda is perpetually depressed and keeps killing herself. It doesn't help that her enabling husband, Tesman, keeps handing her the gun. He realizes nobody want to see a play about him, and if Hedda changes, POOF, he's gone. Their neighbor, Medea, can't stop murdering her children. Promotional material for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production asks, "Does she need a bigger gun or a better author?" Hedda opts for change, and sets out to become a happy, well-adjusted woman.

This change isn't so easy as one would hope. To do it, Hedda has to cross the dark forest and get to the furnace of creation, from whence all characters emerge. Some last only a few minutes, others endure for centuries. For the journey, Hedda is accompanied by her slave, Mammy from Gone With the Wind, who has understandably decided that change would suit her as well.

In a riff on Steven Sondheim's Into the Woods, they encounter a number of other fictional characters along the way, including Dorothy Gale, Icarus, a group of Jesuses (including one battered by Mel Gibson and another from Godspell), Annie, Leatherface (who chases down Annie with a chain saw when she starts singing "Tomorrow"), and an investigator from C.S.I. who is interruped by a hand lotion ad (TV characters come with commercials).

Most importantly, they encounter Patrick and Steven, a couple of aging, prancing, boozing, self-loathing queens who dispense a great deal of the wisdom and comedy in the play. (Weisenheimer didn't recognize them, but found several other reviewers who felt they were based on characters from The Boys in the Band.)

After a perilous journey (that included Patrick, Steven, Mammy, and Tesman enjoying cocktails while rowing across the lake in a boat called The African Queen) everyone gets to the furnace of creation. Hedda gets into the mind of Ibsen, who makes her happy, and Mammy emerges as a jazz diva. Steven and Patrick don't change, however. They did manage to get into the mind of their creator, but "there was an open bar."

Change turns out to be bad. While Hedda and Mammy are happy, they're no longer memorable and begin to fade away. In the end, they go back to the old routine, continuing their suffering so that maybe, just maybe, their audiences can learn something.

Robin Goodrin Nordli is marvelous as Hedda, reprising the character she played in OSF's production of the Ibsen play in 2003. Nordli has played a number of great roles, including Margaret in Richard III in 2005, Weisenheimer's favorite production ever, and Roxane in Cyrano de Bergerac, which we voted best of festival in 2006. Kimberly Scott was amazing as Mammy. All of the performances were super, really, but special kudos to Anthony Heald and Jonathan Haugen who played Patrick and Steven respecitvely and hilariously.

The play includes one great inside joke. In an early scene, the utterly depressed Hedda emerges drinking her morning coffee from a smiley face mug. My Sweetie, though typically much happier than Hedda, can be a bit grumpy in the a.m. before she gets her java fix, and also has one of those smiley mugs. When I saw Hedda with hers I had to laugh like hell!

The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler premiered at the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California in 2006 and it was directed there by Bill Rauch, who also directs the OSF production, and directed it's production of Hedda Gabler in 2003. Further Adventures is a marvelous, smart, fun show. It runs through the end of October. Catch it if you can.

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